‘Fast’ & ‘Slow’ thinking

July 25, 2016

Have you come across Daniel Kahneman’s ideas about ‘Fast’ (System 1) and ‘Slow’ (System 2) thinking? The idea is that ‘Fast’ thinking, which controls most of what we do, is intuitive, automatic, experience-based, and relatively unconscious, while ‘Slow’ thinking is conscious, considered and hard work! It is argued that many market research methods (e.g. depth interviews, surveys, focus groups) only get at ‘Slow thinking’ and so are not a good way to get insights into much of what we do that is controlled by our ‘Fast thinking’.

So how does usability testing fit into this? Can it get at our Fast thinking?

Having watched thousands of usability testing sessions I am clear that how people navigate a site and absorb content is certainly almost all controlled by fast thinking. Indeed, often if we ask users about these issues, thereby accessing their ‘Slow’ thinking, what they tell us they are doing often contradicts what we observe them doing.

However, to assess, say, the suitability of content (does it meet users’ goals) and some design issues (e.g. brand perceptions) requires a research approach that utilises users’ ‘Slow thinking’ because it is necessary to establish users’ goals and if the content meets these. This can only be done by asking them.

Fortunately, usability testing allows us to gain insights into both ‘Fast’ and ‘Slow’ thinking by observing behaviours and asking attitudinal questions within the same testing session. But you need to be clear about which aspect – observing or asking – is best for surfacing which type of insight, and not mixing up the two.